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New Kid in the Chair

COVER STORY

Cellist Jonathan Karoly has just completed his first season with the L.A. Philharmonic--a year devoted to playing music--and learning his place.

June 07, 1998|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

There are times when the partnership between Jonathan Karoly and his 80-year-old companion is in perfect tune.

Then there are the other times.

Karoly, the newest and youngest member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, admits that living with a 1918 Italian Soffritti cello is not always easy--its purity of sound compromised by things like humidity and temperature. "It's like a marriage," Karoly frets--from his dark expression, seriously considering divorce. "An instrument is like a person; it has its own voice. It adjusts differently, depending on how you break it in, and how you play it."

Eighty years old, and the cello is still adjusting. Imagine, then, the adjustment in store for Karoly, a shy 23-year-old from suburban Chicago who joined the Philharmonic in October, fresh out of USC's School of Music.

Karoly came to the orchestra in a tumultuous year. Dutch executive Willem Wijnbergen replaced the Philharmonic's manager of 29 years, Ernest Fleischmann. Music director Esa-Pekka Salonen announced a sabbatical beginning in 2000 to compose an opera. And a $25-million donation from the Walt Disney Co. virtually ensured the completion of Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home for the Philharmonic that has limped toward an opening night for more than a decade.

But Karoly has remained blissfully removed from such tumult. Some musicians sit on committees involved in management and union issues, but not new members.

For Karoly, the 1997-98 season has been about smaller concerns: adapting to the routine (you can't be late for a rehearsal or performance, ever); adjusting to the personalities of guest conductors; enduring retakes at recording sessions.

He has learned to play alongside his former professor, Philharmonic principal cellist Ronald Leonard. He has made the leap from the isolation of the college practice room--where every student is a soloist--to a world in which too much individuality can sabotage a career.

And he has also moved from camping out in a downtown apartment full of boxes to his own house, high in the Hollywood Hills.

But mostly, the first year has been about the music.

There was Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, the first piece he played as an orchestra member, in white tie and tails at the Pavilion. And the splashy Mahler Third Symphony, performed by full orchestra, contralto Anna Larsson, and an adult and children's chorus, all jam-packed onto the stage at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall during the Philharmonic's annual New York visit.

Of contemporary music--in the orchestra's Green Umbrella New Music Series--he observes: "I generally enjoy playing it more than I enjoy listening to it. A lot of new stuff is nearly unplayable--you can say, well, I didn't play this particularly great, but then, neither did anybody else."

A great joy of Karoly's first season has been discovering how old music becomes new music in the pros. "Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven--they sound like the easiest," he says. "You play them when you are a kid--but when you play them later on, they are not so easy. Every slight problem is more exposed."

For Karoly, the year, like much of his life, has been marked score by score. He doesn't talk much, less so when pressed to speak about himself. He prefers, it seems, to speak through the music.

OPENING NIGHT

Beethoven, Symphony No. 4

Karoly's first rehearsal for the Philharmonic's winter season, as well as his first concert, takes place on Oct. 8, 1997--the rehearsal during the day, the concert at 8 p.m. It is the annual benefit concert for the Philharmonic pension fund, traditionally held the night before the season officially opens. On the program: Beethoven's Fourth, and soprano Kathleen Battle performing Andre Previn's "Honey and Rue," which he composed for her, with texts by Toni Morrison.

Battle, and her legendary temperament, will arrive in the afternoon. Wijnbergen, the recently announced new Philharmonic manager, is sweeping through to meet the orchestra before heading back to Holland to tie up loose ends at his former job as manager of Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Wijnbergen will officially take over in March.

With all this going on, little attention is paid to Karoly. He has always been (as his mother describes him) "a big kid"--tall, athletic, a little stocky, with wavy dark hair and a cherubic face. The big kid and his cello slip virtually unnoticed into the artists' entrance at the Pavilion at 10 a.m. Karoly's placid demeanor does not draw attention to itself; he looks as if he's been coming here for years.

In fact, Karoly already performed with the orchestra in a children's concert series in late September. And in 1996, he performed the first movement of Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante as a guest soloist with the Philharmonic. It was a perk of being grand prize winner of the 1996 Pasadena Instrumental Competition for young musicians. Members of the L.A. Philharmonic serve as judges.

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